Why does evolutionary psychology get such a bum rap?

A number of academics are very, very harshly harshly critical of evolutionary psychology as a field. They have a number of valid points - some ideas that evolutionary psych people have produced are probably bunk, like the contention that women like pink because they worked in “gathering” roles long enough to evolve a preference for red (berry/fruit) colors.

However, it seems a bit odd to dismiss an entire school of thought because it occasionally produces odd or erroneous results - plenty of scientific disciplines do that. And evolutionary psych - the study of human minds as they have been shaped by selection pressure - doesn’t seem like an intrinsically bad idea. Our minds are housed in our brains, after all - it doesn’t seem unreasonable that evolution would shape those brains just as it’s shaped the rest of us. Indeed, it would be bizarre if it hadn’t.

So, why does evo psych tend to attract criticism as a field (rather than criticism of individual evo psych theories)?

I think it’s because there’s a feeling that evolutionary psychology is used by people to justify existing biases and stereotypes. They’re sometimes seen as “just-so” stories.

I agree that it’s sometimes used for that purpose - but why doesn’t that just mean “there is bad evolutionary psychology out there” rather than “evolutionary psychology itself is bad”?

For example, these guys are trying to use evolutionary psych to explore the nature and function of emotion: http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/emotion.html

Whether they’re on the right track or not, I’m nowhere near qualified to know - but they certainly don’t seem to be coming at it from an improper or invidious purpose. They’re trying to figure out how the world works, and how they can test their ideas - not saying “this is why [ethnic group X] can’t do [y]”.

Well, most people’s experience with evolutionary psychology is of the “this is why [ethnic group X] can’t do [y]” variety rather than the “this is why people get sad” variety.

Plus there’s a really strong strain of social constructionism in certain academic fields, and evolutionary psychology is pretty much a direct challenge to that. It’s sort of the old nature vs nurture debate writ large.

Given our limited understanding of both psychology and evolution, I don’t see how anything useful can come out of EP. We can’t verify against data, we can’t verify against theory – all we can do is stroke our chins and say “hmmm … that seems plausible.”

It’s three things…

  1. This:
  1. Outrageous over-reach by some of the pioneers.

  2. The threat that EP imposes to the social sciences. EP basically says “you people who have been studying anthropology, sociology, psychology etc etc). You are all wrong.”

Given #3, it’s all to easy for the people who are threatened by EP to point to #1 + #2 and say it is all bunk.

I have read a fair amount of popular EP books (sociobiology, consilience, Before the Dawn, The Moral Animal) and they build this incredibly compelling case and then, in the last chapter, throw out some wacky ideas that manage to undermine everything that came before it.

What is evolutionary psychology?

This nails it, IMHO.

It’s an academic turf battle, which are generally very wicked.

Evolutionary psychology tries to look for evolutionary reasons for human behavior. So, for instance, observing that men cheat on their wives, it tries to come up with an evolutionary reason that people might have developed that behavior.

And the classic evo psych answer for that would be that, since males pay a very small cost (in terms of resources, calories, etc) for each attempt at reproduction, it makes good sense to make as many attempts as possible - genes that promote such behavior are likelier to get passed on to the next generation. On the other hand, female mammals pay steep costs when reproducing - lengthy pregancy, (in humans) a risky birthing process, and so on. Thus, the best odds of successful reproduction in that case lie in only selectively attempting to breed, waiting for the best possible set of genes (and possibly, a willingness to help child-rear to go along with it).

Why is an evolutionary explanation for distasteful human behaviour necessarily a justification of that behaviour?

Huh. Then how would it explain cheating by women?

It seems as though the entirety of psychology is based on bullshit. Freud and Jung just made stuff up out of whole cloth. There was no rigor applied and no double blind experiments. This just seems to be the same. Psychiatrists are people that want to be scientists but can’t, or won’t, learn math, physics, and chemistry.

The attempt to explain psychology in terms of its origins in evolution.

Some reasons it is hated by many IMHO:

1: It implies that humans aren’t special. That our behavior is influenced by instinct like every other animal.

2: It offends the “blank slate” ideology; the largely faith* based insistence that we are born without instincts of any kind. Note that the “nurture” side of the nature-nurture debate is more extreme; you do find plenty of people who insist that nature has no role; very few if any claim that nurture has no role.

3: It’s a historical science, and those tend to get looked down upon because such classic scientific techniques as experiments often can’t be performed.

4: It’s still primitive, since we can’t get a good look at the underlying processes.

5: People are still caught up in the “Nature is Good”, and the “Genetic Anything = Nazis” bugaboos. Pointing out anything bad that we do that’s driven by genes offends the former; and the whole idea offends the latter.

6: Many people find the whole idea of understanding the origin of our own motivations bad. They find explanations of genes causing, say, criminal behavior and bad parenting causing it equally offensive. They just want to yell “Free Will” and not look too closely at how we actually work.

7: Many religious people find it theologically offensive.

  • I mean here faith as in “believed in without and against evidence” sense, not the religious sense.

Don’t psychiatrists have to graduate med school? There’s a fair bit of math, physics, and chemistry there, I believe.

Because of the “Nature = Good” attitude many people have. If you say that there’s an evolutionary reason why people would cheat, or rape, or murder many people will insist that you are saying that cheating, rape and murder are good. They don’t want to admit that nature is amoral.

A husband is chosen for being a good provider; a father chosen for being good at producing offspring. From a Darwinian viewpoint, producing sons who are good seducers is in her interest, since her sons are half hers genetically.

Evolutionary psychology gets a bad rap because it is not true. The central claim of evolutionary psychology is that specific behaviors are shaped by genes, and those genes in turn were chosen by natural selection. Scientists have been study the human genome for a long time. We sequenced the entire genome more than a decade ago. We’ve poured quite a bit of money and effort into large studies intended to match up specific genes with specific traits. And the net results is basically a zero. We’ve found none of the genes that would exist if evolutionary psychology were true. Not genes that cause people to be polygamous or monogamous. No genes that causes people to be selfish or altruistic. No genes that cause people to be violent or pacifist. No genes that cause women to prefer pink and men to prefer blue. Zip. Nada. Nothing.

Defenders of the field can, of course, point out that there are potential explanations for why the studies have failed to find the genes in question. There may be multiple genes influencing any given trait. It may be difficult to devise a psychological test that precisely pinpoints a trait. Certain traits may be influenced by both genes and social circumstances. etc… But while these may explain some failures to find the actual genes, they don’t explain the total failure to find any genes tied to particular behaviors.

Who believes that nature = good?

Or she’s out looking to trade up.

Psychiatry and psychology are two completely different disciplines. Psychiatrists are physicians (medical doctors) specializing in psychiatry. Psychologists are not physicians.

I don’t understand. This

seems to be saying that women would not cheat, but in fact they do.